In a strange way, Donna Bishop is grateful to Michael Vick.
Bishop is the founder and president of Alliance for Animals, a no-kill animal shelter and low-cost clinic in South Boston. Though she began the shelter to help feral cats, she has been rescuing pit bulls for more than 10 years, and she continues her efforts even though she's now legally blind and was diagnosed several years ago with multiple sclerosis.
It wouldn't seem that Bishop, a diminutive, soft-spoken woman who wears a large magnifying glass on a lanyard around her neck to help her read, would have any reason to thank the Atlanta Falcons quarterback who pleaded guilty Aug. 21 to charges that he was involved in a dog fighting operation that killed dogs that refused to compete or didn't perform well. But though Bishop despises what Vick has admitted to doing, she feels that at least all the publicity has brought the issue of dog fighting, and by extension the plight of pit bulls, to a wider public. And she hopes that might inspire someone to step in and continue the work she has been doing once she is no longer able to.
Pit bulls have gotten a bad rap, as far as Bishop is concerned. "No one who saw the footage on CNN [taken at Vick's farm] of pit bulls refusing to fight and trying to play with each other and lick each other can think that they're all vicious dogs," Bishop says. It wasn't until the '80s or '90s, she says, that she began noticing large numbers of pits being trained to be fighting dogs.
Many cities across the country have considered banning ownership of pit bulls or requiring owners to muzzle them in public because they are considered dangerous, and many insurance companies will not issue policies to homeowners who have pit bulls. (Pit bull is a term that in recent years has been used to refer to several breeds of muscular, large-jawed dogs including American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and American Pit Bull Terriers.)
Bishop says the characterization of the dogs as inherently vicious and dangerous is unfair. While some are aggressive toward other dogs, and some can be trained to fight, the dogs are generally friendly with people and extremely loyal. "Pit bulls used to be family dogs - Petey from 'The Little Rascals' was a pit bull," says Bishop, 58, who is divorced with a grown daughter and lives in a neat house near Tenean Beach with six cats and two cinnamon-colored pits, both of which appear to weigh almost as much as she does.
Scott Giacoppo, deputy director of advocacy at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says the dogs suffer from bad press and bad owners. "Pit bulls are loyal, athletic, and great dogs for an active household," he says. "In the wrong hands, any dog can be dangerous." The MSPCA, he says, adamantly opposes breed-specific legislation, preferring that dogs be judged on behavior and actions.
Those who try to train pit bulls to fight but fail often just leave them on the street, Bishop says. That's how her first pit bull, Charlotte, came to her. "The kids who lived next door when I lived in Dorchester knew I had the clinic, and they brought her to me. The kids told me she had been living with a gang and they threw her out onto the street because she wouldn't fight."
That was 1996. Bishop has been finding room in her home and in the cramped clinic for the dogs ever since. "I used to have a career," Bishop says. "I used to be a scientist, and I was the deputy director for the Office of Research and Standards at the state Department of Environmental Protection." But she traded her job for a calling.
She was so saddened at the number of pits and pit mixes she was seeing at the city pound waiting to be euthanized in the late '90s that she instituted a program offering free spaying or neutering to any pit bull brought to the clinic. Alliance for Animals (afabos ton.org), operating out of cramped quarters on Silver Street, is the only clinic in the city that offers this kind of program.
"I think what we do with the pit bulls - finding them good homes and spaying and neutering them - is exceptionally important," says Dr. Judith Mesheau, one of three veterinarians who regularly contribute their time to the clinic. Mesheau has a private practice in Duxbury, but she drives to Alliance three days a week, and she typically performs about 20 spay or neuter surgeries in a day.
While it can be difficult to find a shelter or rescue group to take in an abandoned pit bull, Bishop always seems to make room. Her second pit, Henry, was taken in by Alliance almost five years ago, and Bishop brought him home to foster him. Charlotte loved him, and he stayed.
"Donna is the only one who's really helping me with the pits right now," says Cheryl Marino, an employee of a local animal hospital that operates the city pound for Lynn, Chelsea, and Medford. Three or four pit bulls a week are often brought into the pound by animal control officers. Marino tries to place all the dogs that come in either with a no-kill shelter or with a rescue group. All the dogs are temperament-tested to make sure they have no aggressive tendencies, and the ones she tries to place are good dogs, she says, but if Marino can't find a shelter or rescue group to take them, she might be forced to euthanize them.
"Donna is taking a breed that I can't get out of here," Marino says.
Bishop suffered a stroke in 2000, and now the side effects of her MS and the medication she's taking for it - neuropathy, fibromyalgia, and osteoporosis - have left her exhausted. "I'm tired and cranky," she says with a half laugh. "My doctor wants me to stop working and get some rest."
But the numbers of dogs and cats that need help are daunting, and Bishop can't step back from the day-to-day stress of running the shelter and clinic until she knows she can leave it in the hands of someone who will take care of the animals the way that she has.
"The Alliance is my life," Bishop says, "and I can't really relax until I've found someone to take over who's as committed as I am."